It seems like every time that we play in Indianapolis, it's really snowy," Greensky Bluegrass' bassist Mike Devol said to me on the phone last week. I had just finished describing the scene in icy Indy, roads all a mess, the knee-high snow drifts. Devol's familiar – he spent a lot of time in Indy as a youngster, as he's got a lot of family here. But most of his visits lately have been with the Kalamazoo, Mich. band, as they inched up in venue size from The Mousetrap and Birdy's to Friday's show at the Vogue.
NUVO: Greensky does a lot of covers. I wanted to know how the process of covering songs works in your band. I love the Jason Isbell track "Elephant" and I know you guys have been covering that lately.
[...commence 10 minute digression about how much we both love the new Jason Isbell record Southeastern...]
mike Devol: That song and album is pretty indicative of our general cover process. Sometimes we do a cover for its significance. For a couple of years we did, like, '80s Halloween. So we would all come up with '80s covers because they fit this theme. Or, we'd do a special pick, like one time we covered this a cappella Grateful Dead cover that they had performed 44 years earlier as an encore at The Fillmore. So we did it a cappella as well. So we do stuff for the historical significane.
But the ones that stick with us in our performance repertoire, sometimes only for like a year, are the ones where we just love a song. We get obsessed with an album or a song, or that song ends up being something ... specifically, we covered [Isbell's] song "Elephant," a super, super sad one about a friend dying of cancer. ... I think a great songwriter writes a song and makes it so the listener can make a personal connection with the song. If you can make a song about yourself, like, "This is me, I get it." That was one I knew that we all had a personal relationship with, because I know we've all dealt with someone that has cancer. Something about the simplicity of that song; his lyrics are so lonesome.
Paul [Hoffman], our mandolin player, just started sitting around, playing it. That's kind of what we do at home, play along with albums that we like. So one person starts playing it — especially if it's Paul, who acts as our lead singer most of the time — and I already knew the song. I had already spent days playing through that album on my bass. Next thing you know, there's two of us playing it. Next thing you know, at soundcheck, we're all playing a spontaneous Greensky arrangement of that song. And at that point, it takes very little to arrange it into something that we can perform. That's how it happened with that song. ... Since then, we started to play other songs from that album in soundcheck. Because we know them; we all want to play them, we all want to sing them. The good covers, the covers that stick with us, that's the process. One guy noodling on it. ...
With Jason Isbell's album, it's a little easier because there's not a lot of drums. It's pretty stripped down. ... We've learned what our role is in these textures, without drums. So you listen to a song, and I think to myself, "Here's this organ part, there's a guitar and a bass." I play the bass, so my part is going to revolve around that, but it's also going to revolve around the drum part. We have to divide that up between us in a bluegrass band. Our process of texturizing is probably the most interesting part.
NUVO: When is your next album coming out? I keep seeing "early 2014" as the listed date.
Devol: Unfortunately, Kat, that's still the answer. It's seems like we're real close to that moment where we're setting a date, hopefully in the next week or two. I'm hoping it comes out in early or mid-March. But that is unofficial in every way that it can be.
It's finished. We've wrapped up the music and are just now wrapping up the art. We're just about to send it out for production. But there always seems to be a lot of ... not red tape because we do it all independently, but there's a lot of things to be considered in timing. We're still sort of waiting on it. But it's coming. I can tell you that the name of it is going to be If Sorrows Swim, which is lyrics from one of the songs that's on it that Paul wrote that nobody's ever heard. There's a few songs on it that are brand new. We always try to save some songs. We had five or six or seven songs on this album that nobody had ever heard. A couple of these new ones are songs that we've been developing live for a while, that people will recognize and now people will have the studio version of it. Hopefully that February or March tour will be an album promo tour, and then that will be out.
NUVO: [I ask about playing festivals; Devol eventually ends up talking about the jam band festival experience.]
Devol: ... You know, I claim to hate jam bands, sort of. I mean, Greensky's a jam band. And I'm comfortable with this. But I went through a phase, that I'm not so much in now, where I was trying to do something to resist being categorized as a jam band. But I realized that the live show, which is where we thrive, jam bands are the best. There's this element of impromptu, ad-libbed moments that can be created on stage when you're in a jam band and when you're at a jam band show. Everything is within a certain guideline — we're never like, "All right, do whatever you want!"— we're leading each other where we're going. So it falls into some patterns eventually, but it's never the same. The energy is directly dependent on the energy of the crowd, how our day went, the sound, the room. Each situation provides separate potential for what can be and what isn't going to be.
I go see all these rock bands and I'm disappointed. To me, I think it's because a band like that goes out and plays songs from their album. And they're trying to recreate something that happened in a studio, and they have to modify it to make it translate live, but it's not always going to. The crowd, that energy is something that has to be left to be decided at that moment.
So I felt resistant for a little while, to be classified as a jam band. And I didn't want to be classified as a bluegrass band. ... I didn't know what we were supposed to be, because those are the two things we really are. It's hard to avoid what you are. Then it was like, we're just Greensky and if we're a jam band, which we are, awesome, because we get to provide this really personalized performance to our fans. There's no other genre that lets that happen.